Whether it’s business or leisure travel that takes you to Southeast Asia, it’s critical you not offend your hosts by resorting to certain behaviors you wouldn’t think twice about back home. While each of the countries in this region has its own unique parameters of protocol for interpersonal relations, the underlying rule that unites them is that you can never be too polite or too respectful.
Greetings and Conversation
Handshakes have become an accepted Western custom in the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam, Singapore and Indonesia, whereas a greeting called the wai resembling a prayerful gesture is the official protocol of Thailand. Authors Terri Morrison and Wayne Conway, in “Kiss, Bow, or Shake Hands Asia,” caution against a handshake that is too firm, however, as this is interpreted as aggression. As a show of respect, always acknowledge the oldest people in the room first. Upon leaving, repeat this ritual. First names are never used until enough familiarity has been established between the parties. Raised voices, displays of anger and pointing with your index finger are considered rude. Nor should you rush a Southeast Asian associate to make a decision, as this may result in distrust.
Throughout Southeast Asia, business appointments are set up several weeks in advance and confirmed as a courtesy a day or two before. Punctuality is extremely important even though meetings often start out with small talk and light refreshments. Although Southeast Asian businesspeople are technically savvy, enthusiastic participants in the global marketplace, Mary Murray Bosrock and Megan McGinnis in “Asian Business Customs; Manners: A Country-by-Country Guide” point out they prefer to negotiate in person rather than by phone or email. Business cards are always presented face up with both hands. If you receive one in return, it’s a show of respect to read it before putting it in your pocket.
Eating and Drinking
Formality at restaurants and as a guest in a private home is expected at all times. The oldest person or more senior official always takes the lead in being seated as well as taking the first bite. According to Elizabeth Devine and Nancy Braganti, authors of “The Traveler’s Guide to Asian Customs; Manners,” it’s a show of respect toward the host to leave a small bit of food on your plate after the meal. Meals in private homes are typically served family style. Refrain from taking a second helping until it has been offered to you. Chopsticks when offered should never be used to point or gesture, nor should they ever be stuck in your bowl of rice between bites like a pair of rabbit ears. If your glass needs refilling, allow someone to do this for you, then return the favor. If you have to use a toothpick, do so discreetly behind a napkin.
If you’re invited to someone’s home for dinner, it’s customary to bring a wrapped gift. It’s important, however, to choose your wrapping paper color carefully. White, blue or black paper, for example, are associated with funerals in Singapore. In Thailand, the colors to avoid are green, black and blue whereas yellow or gold is favorable. In the Philippines there are no color taboos at all. In Indonesia, red and gold are considered lucky. For all the effort you put into your wrapping, however, be aware your host won’t open the gift until after you leave so as not to hurt the feelings of those left out. While it’s popular in Western culture to bring a gift of food, Devine and Braganti recommend sticking with boxed candy or sending a fruit basket as a thank-you. To present a food gift upon arrival implies you think your hosts are poor.